Text: Matthew 2:1-12
For most of the last dozen years, between Christmas and New Year’s, Abbie and I have made the trek out to Western Kansas. This is where Abbie grew up and where much of her extended family still lives. Because it’s such a long drive we stay for over a week. It’s a pretty laid back time. We visit with family, maybe do a project in Grandpa Marlin’s woodshop, read, play games, eat, etc. This year included some playing in the little bit of snow that fell a couple days after Christmas.
Some of you may know Kansas as that long stretch of nothing before you get to the mountains. And you’d be mostly right.
What’s especially wonderful about Western Kansas is that it’s almost nothing. When you get out of the car and spend some time there, there’s a rare spaciousness all around you, full of almost nothing. It’s a place where the Advent prophecy of Isaiah has been fulfilled: Every valley has been lifted up, every mountain and hill has been made low; the uneven ground has become level, and the rough places a plain. Take a walk or a run on a dirt road outside Quinter, Kansas and you can see for miles: just try to plan it so the wind is at your back when you turn around to make your way back to where you started.
Because of the time of year when we do this trip, it has come to serve as something of a buffer zone between years: To reflect some on what has happened in the past year, but moreso to clear my mind and do some thinking about the year to come, which is still as open as a Kansas landscape, almost nothing.
On the church calendar the trip ends up occurring at the fulfillment of Advent, right before the coming of Epiphany, the climax of the Christmas season which is technically January 6th, but which many churches, including ours, celebrate the second Sunday after Christmas day, whenever that happens to fall. Epiphany is the only Sunday I’m aware of when the four lectionary texts are always the same, no matter what the year. Two of them have just been read. Isaiah has been our faithful companion through the whole season and now declares with boldness, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you…Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” The gospel passage is the story of the magi who are coming to visit Jesus, the Christ, the light of the world.
It would be a stretch to draw too many parallels between the journey of the magi and our annual trip to be with Kansas family. They are both certainly long journeys. But the magi are explicitly not going to visit family. Matthew either does not know of, or chooses not to tell, Luke’s story of the shepherds keeping their flocks nearby, visiting the baby Jesus recently born to their people. For Matthew, the first visitors to see Jesus are from far, far away. They are magi from the East, Persia to be more precise, present day Iran. They have come, as they say, to pay homage, and to give gifts to this one born King of the Jews. They themselves are not kings, although tradition has come to remember them this way, partly because of that verse in Isaiah to which they have become so closely linked: “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” They are from the nations, Gentiles, Goyim, non-Jews, those not in the family who claim Abraham and Sarah as their biological ancestors and who look to Moses as their founding prophet.
The picture on the bulletin cover by a Chinese artist is an example of how other cultures have imagined their own visit to the Christ child and their welcome into the universal family that came through his ministry.
The magi weren’t kings, but they were advisors to kings and rulers who sought inside information on what the motions in the cosmos might mean for their kingdom. The magi were astrologers, professional star gazers, priests of light and heavenly bodies. They were, as their name indicates, magicians, magi, sometimes admired, sometimes mocked for their claim to special knowledge and power. Wise men inasmuch as they were able to provide insight and guidance to decision makers. Please, advise us, magi: Will we prevail if we go into battle? In what month should the princess marry? Which assistant has been stealing from the treasury? What do the stars say?
It was their business to be precise in their observations. To track movements. To record patterns and check them with past records. To account for abnormalities and have hypotheses of what this may mean. To make links between what they saw above and what was happening below. To consult, to ponder, to devise. Magi had official status in Persia, the center of the massive empire that controlled much of the ancient near eastern world before it was conquered by Alexander the Great and later the Romans. The Romans who put Herod the Great in charge of one of their provinces, giving him the title “King of Judea.”
Matthew writes: “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” Jerusalem was a bigger town than present day Quinter, Kansas, but perhaps had some of the same small town dynamics. It was probably hard to hide, especially when you’re not from around those parts. Word gets around quick, and Herod soon knows of their presence and their purpose, that they are searching for the whereabouts of a child they are calling by the title that belonged solely to him: “King of the Jews.”
Herod calls on his own advisors and wise men. Those who concern themselves not with stars but with texts. Scribes and chief priests who know their people’s sacred history. The magi want to know where, and this is exactly what Herod asks his selected advisors. They have spent their life studying the Torah and the prophets. Letters and words tirelessly recorded and preserved on scrolls. It was their business to read and interpret, to consult and ponder and teach. “Where is the Messiah to be born?” They have an answer and a precise citation to back it up: “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'” They deliver a skillful interpretation of the prophet Micah.
Having received counsel on the general place, Herod then secretly calls the magi and asks them the time when this light they have been following first appeared. He enlists them in a fact finding mission to learn of the exact place where the child is within Bethlehem. Herod had maintained his position of power for over three decades by consistently and brutally eliminating the competition, so it should be no secret what Herod plans to do with this precise knowledge provided by those who gather wisdom from stars and those who gather wisdom from texts.
The philosopher John Caputo was recently interviewed, in the December issue of Christian Century magazine. Caputo is currently working on a book called Truth which is somewhat ironic for him since he has spent most of his career, as he puts it, “trying to take the air out of the word truth, trying to debunk and deconstruct its absoluteness.” Caputo talks about when his mentor and friend, the king of postmodern philosophy himself, Jacques Derrida, would come visit him in Philadelphia. Caputo would want to show him the Liberty Bell or Valley Forge, but Derrida would never want to do that. Caputo says, “His way to explore a city was to walk until he got lost and then try to find his way back. In the process, he would discover all kinds of things. Both personally and as a philosopher, he thought that being genuinely lost and seeking something is a crucial part of the journey. We expose ourselves to the unknown and the unforeseeable. Truth is like that” (Christian Century, December 24, 2014, pp. 30,31).
The interview never makes any reference to the visit of the magi, but I love how this bit connects with the story, and with our position in time of having a new year ahead of us. The magi are successful in their search for Christ, and protect his whereabouts from the conniving Herod. The mysterious light guides them to their destination in Bethlehem, and they arrive safely home by another route. But I’d like to think that there’s more going on here than them simply finding what they were looking for.
I wonder if their encounter with Christ was just as much an experience of getting lost as it was of finding. Being guided by mercy, justice, love, and forgiveness is a very different experience than being guided by a star, or even a text. Just about anyone with access to the right resources and information can study the patterns, the history of interpretation, devise a plan, and follow a star. Historically, very few had access to such things. Epiphany is a celebration of a light that is accessible to all people and cultures, revealed from the humble setting of Bethlehem, a light for all to see.
Rather than being a light that tells you where to go, this is a light that tells you how to travel. One could go through life knowing exactly where one is going, and getting there successfully. Devise a plan, look at the map, or follow the voice of the GPS, see the Liberty Bell, check it off a list, and move on to the next destination. If you jump on I-70 and head west, you’re bound to get there eventually, whether you’re headed to the plains or the mountains.
It’s harder to wonder around, not knowing where you’re going, but committed to paying attention to what you learn along the way. It’s harder to constantly have to check in with life to see if one is being guided by love, justice, forgiveness, and mercy. These are much less precise measurements, more difficult to gage and evaluate. It’s a whole different world when truth is something discovered in the ambiguity of relationships rather than some fixed destination. When the very act of seeking something is a crucial part of the journey.
If you don’t know what 2015 holds, join the club and settle in for the journey. Even if your calendar is full and you think you know exactly what it holds, in order to travel well you will need to keep tending to love along the way.
Throughout this season we have been pondering the theme of disruption, and we close with this final note:
To borrow the language of postmodern philosophy: Despite all their learning, their understanding of the movement of the heavenly bodies, it’s quite possible that the magi returned home having their knowledge deconstructed to almost nothing. This new light in their life leading them to destinations yet unknown.